Who Needs Certification? NYC Dept. of Ed. Wants to Train Teachers on the Fly

If the Department of Education gets its way, new teachers won’t have to enroll in local colleges or universities to get certification to work in city schools.


Shael Polakow-Suransky, the department’s second in command, said today that the department would ask the state for permission to certify teachers internally by using top educators to train new recruits in shortage areas. Currently, teachers must either have completed an education certification program at a college or university or be enrolled in one.

Traditional teacher preparation programs have not produced enough special education or science teachers to fill the city’s needs, Polakow-Suransky said. Reforms to the way students with disabilities are served this year have pushed the city to offer current teachers an incentive to take classes that would allow them to lead special education classes.

“We don’t want to have to depend on a university in order to train our teachers,” he said this afternoon. “Already, we’re having to retrain many teachers when they come into the system because they don’t have the skills that they need.”

State officials say they will consider the city’s application when it is formally filed. But if approved, the proposal would build on several other changes to teacher preparation rules that the state has rolled out in recent years in response to growing criticism that teachers trained in the traditional way are not always up to par.

In 2009, state officials announced that year that alternative certification programs such as Teach for America would become eligible to certify teachers without partnering with a college or university to provide training, as they always had. This past June, the American Museum of Natural History became the first non-graduate school to gain state permission to certify teachers.

Also in 2009, a new graduate school of education, Relay, opened with an exclusive mission of training teachers while they are already working in schools; several charter school networks now use it to train their teachers exclusively. The state is currently in the process of adopting new certification standards that focus more on real teaching and less on tests and other benchmarks to prove competence.

But no district has yet been granted permission to certify its own teachers. Such a move would grant an unprecedented level of authority to local education officials while heightening competition with existing teacher preparation programs.

Under the proposal, which the city has not yet made formally, the department would fast-track teachers into the classroom for areas where more teachers are needed, including special education and science. They would work in thriving schools alongside strong teachers who would serve as instructors in an arrangement similar to that of small-scale residency programs that the city introduced last year.

The difference would be that no higher education institution would have to be involved, saving both teachers and the city on tuition while freeing up more of teachers’ time to focus on on-the-ground needs.

Polakow-Suransky announced the proposal while testifying before Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s education reform commission this afternoon during a meeting that was held at a teaching college, Bank Street College of Education.

“While we have some really powerful partnerships with higher education, the capacity to drive teacher development exists within the system,” Polakow-Suransky said. He added, ”I don’t think the higher education programs are going away, and that wouldn’t be my intention.”

The program would not award master’s degrees and would not supplant the city’s longstanding Teaching Fellows program, which brings new teachers into the classroom full-time while also requiring them to take classes at local universities. But Polakow-Suransky left open the possibility that a department-run certification program could expand in the future.

“This would be initially small because we have to prove that we can do this well,” he said. “Who knows where it will lead in the long run?”

Jon Snyder, a dean at Bank Street, said during the commission meeting it would be a mistake to let all of the certification power rest with either higher education or the city alone, because a major problem facing teacher training is the fact that pre-service training does not match up with in-service needs. “We are going to recreate our existing problem” if the city gains more authority over teacher certification, he said.

The city has already had informal conversations about the proposal with Commissioner John King, Polakow-Suransky said. “He didn’t say no. He didn’t say yes either.”

Today, King said, “We’ll review what the city is proposing. Our top priority is to ensure that new teachers have content knowledge and instructional skills to successfully prepare people for college and careers.”

But Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch said the proposal deserved consideration because it aims to solve a problem — a shortage of teachers in certain areas — that has existed for decades at least.

“You can’t just keep identifying the same problem areas and tread water on difficult questions and say you are moving the system forward,” Tisch said. “Everything needs to be on the table.”

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